Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is in the most difficult period of his presidency, with vociferous protests over the disappearance of 43 teachers-in-training in the state of Guerrero fueling angry calls for his resignation. At the same time, his government is facing accusations of corruption. Taken together, the two problems seriously undermine the image of Mexico that the president and his team have worked to promote around the globe.
He is also facing the criticism that the modern Mexico he promoted to investors is far from reality. On November 6, Peña Nieto spooked investors by abruptly canceling a contract for a bullet train to connect Mexico’s capital to the neighboring industrial town of Quetararo. Three days later, Mexico’s media crackled with a story accusing Peña Nieto of hiding a potential conflict of interest. Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui claimed that Peña Nieto’s private residence, a multimillion dollar mansion, was actually built by Grupo Higa, a corporation that has won contracts from his government and also supported his campaign for the presidency.
For nearly two years, Peña Nieto has trumpeted a series of ambitious reforms and also studiously worked to avoid discussing security issues. His entrance into office was heralded both by the signing of the Pacto for Mexico, a historic three-party agreement on his reform agenda, and also by the emergence of armed, masked “autodefensa” citizen militia members in Guerrero. The disparity between the celebration of Mexico’s new era of reform in Mexico City and the actions taken by locals frustrated with government inaction in Guerrero has finally come to a head.
Wary of tarnishing his celebrity image and disrupting his carefully planned legislative agenda, Peña Nieto refused to make rural Guerrero’s pressing problems a centerpiece of his policy agenda. In many ways, Guerrero’s current problems stem from the high profile anti-kingpin, cartel-fighting strategy of his predecessor. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon dismantled the Beltran-Leyva criminal organization and inadvertently unleashed a new era of inter-gang and inter-cartel fighting that has turned Acapulco, Guerrero’s tourist hub and only real connection to the global economy, into the most violent city in the country. As gangs of criminals who had learned to kidnap, kill, torture, and extort during the era of cartel infighting during the Calderon administration expanded out from Acapulco, Guerrero’s residents were introduced to a new wave of brutal violence.
As is obvious in the town of Iguala, a depot for the heroin produced in Guerrero’s hills, local politicians have been co-opted by criminal organizations. A combination of local-level incompetence and complicity with criminals along with federal level indifference has led to disastrous consequences in Guerrero. One result of Mexico’s recent problems is that it is now painfully obvious that the country’s reform agenda is far from complete. In addition to the energy sector reform that is of interest to foreign investors, Mexico needs to focus on local-level police reform and also carry through on promises to improve its woefully backlogged and problem-plagued judicial system. After all, nearly 19 out of every 20 crimes that occur in Mexico currently go unreported or uninvestigated. Mexico works hard to establish legal protections and rule of law for foreign investors. Residents also deserve these protections.
In many ways, Peña Nieto has worked to distance himself from the “tough on crime” rhetoric of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. But, with the problems in Iguala, he has found himself caught in the same trap that ensnared Calderon in Ciudad Juarez in January 2010 when he dismissed the killing of fifteen young people as a case of criminals fighting criminals. Public backlash was swift as outraged parents demanded justice for the slain teenagers in Juarez—who were student athletes and not gang members. Calderon’s administration responded by creating “Todos Somos Juarez,” a program designed to combine public and private efforts and pull together new social initiatives and help rebuild the social fabric in what was at the time, Mexico’s most violent city. Because of a combination of effective local policing, economic and social initiatives, and the shifting dynamics of Mexico’s organized crime hierarchy, security in Juarez has dramatically improved.
The lesson for Peña Nieto (who has been criticized for leaving Mexico to visit China) is that security policy cannot be divorced from economic and social policy. Although behind the scenes, his government has worked to create a new division of the Federal Police, the Gendarmeria, and also detained several high profile organized crime leaders, Peña Nieto has shied away from talking about security issues and explaining how crime fighting efforts are linked to his economic and social development initiatives.
Mexico does appear to be on the path towards economic development, but more programs are needed to help spur rural economic growth. In the twenty years since NAFTA was signed, Mexico has dismantled many support programs for farmers in Mexico’s poor southern states. Modern Mexico has built up manufacturing sectors and high tech exporting hubs in cities in the north, but the benefits of “Mexico’s Moment” have yet to trickle down to Guerrero, the state that has Mexico’s lowest rate of formal sector employment. (Only 1 in every 10 workers is employed in the formal sector.)
One of few groups working to help rural farmers in Guerrero were the students at the Ayotzinapa teacher’s training school who were detained by local police on September 26. Mexico’s Attorney General, Jusus Murillo Karam, has said their bodies were piled into a trash heap and set on fire. No laboratory tests have proven the identity of the charred remains.
On November 18, the president’s wife, a former telenovela star, released a televised statement claiming that she paid for the mansion she shares with her husband with her own income. Unlike, Carmen Aristegui, the journalist who uncovered the “casa blanca” scandal, Peña Nieto has not released any documents to back up his side of the story. People in Mexico are still waiting for answers.
In the long-run, they are also waiting for solutions to the economic and security problems they face. If Mexico is indeed in the midst of a new age of reform, these reforms need to extend further. So far Peña Nieto has studiously avoided talking about security issues during his term in office. It is now clear that security problems need to be addressed as part of the larger package of economic and social initiatives Mexico needs. Calderon made the mistake of letting security issues dominate his public discourse and sullied Mexico’s image in the process. Peña Nieto has done the opposite. As Mexico’s leader and main ambassador to the world it is his job to explain how security initiatives fit into his larger economic development agenda.